The Magna Carta, Then and Now

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My speech to the Liberal Democrat Lawyers Association fringe meeting at Liberal Democrat Party conference in Liverpool this weekend.

The Magna Carta, Then and Now
 
As many of you will know, I am a human rights lawyer by training—I did a traineeship and worked for a while at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg dealing with human rights applications from this country. 
It’s why I could not turn down the opportunity, when Nick suggested it, of becoming Liberal Democrat Minister for Justice and Civil Liberties. And it is why I care passionately about this issue, just as our party has always cared about and defended human rights at home and abroad. 
 
Three months tomorrow, on 15 June 2015, we will celebrate the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta. I am proud to have been part of the Government’s planning for the anniversary. It’s right we celebrate what was the first general statement of rights in England, three clauses of which remain in force.
Clause 1 confirms the liberties of the Church of England and of all freemen of the realm. Clause 9 confirms the liberties of the City of London and other cities, towns and ports. And Clause 29 reads: “No Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised”which means unlawfully  dispossessed—“of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will We not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the Land. We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right.”

That principle is as important today as 800 years ago, not least in a country in which we do not have a codified constitution. We have written documents, but they are not put together in one place. When people talk about the Bill of Rights, the one that most comes to mind is the 1689 Bill of Rights – itis the only formal Bill of Rights this country has ever had, but the key elements are as relevant today as they were then: that Parliament should be frequently summoned and that there should be free elections; that Members and peers should be able to speak and act freely in Parliament; that no army should be raised in peacetime and that no taxes be levied without the authority of Parliament; that laws should not be dispensed with or suspended without the consent of Parliament; and that “excessive bail ought not to be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted”.
We do not have laws in this country with a constitutional status above other laws, and Parliament is free to repeal any legislation that it wants to repeal, but if one looks back across the sweep of history, Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights are the two laws that people regard as the bedrock of our democratic country’s civilisation today.
 
But there is one rather major developmentthat took place more recently in our history, and has had a profound impact on the rights of every single person here and across Europe. The decision by the United Nationsin December 1948 to adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - the Magna Carta for all humanity as it has beendescribed. Those fundamental freedoms are as important as they ever have been – important principles like equality before the law and freedom of speech. As one of the very first signatories, we then played a significant role in drafting what became the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), to which we remain a signatory today.
 
As Liberal Democrats we can be hugely proud that, by taking the tough decision to go into government and not let the Tories go it alone – as many of them would have chosen to do and all of them would have preferred – we insisted that the Coalition Agreement was clear on our commitment to the ECHR: “We will establish a Commission to investigate the creation of a British Bill of Rights that incorporates and builds on all our obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights, ensures that these rights continue to be enshrined in British law, and protects and extends British liberties. We will seek to promote a better understanding of the true scope of these obligations and liberties.
 
But as we head towards the election, be in no doubt that we must be ready to fight for these rights all over again. Because the Tories are again threatening to walk away from the ECHR and have committed to scrapping the Human Rights Act, with no guarantee about what would come in its place.
 
It is incredible that the party of Churchill (other than when he was a Liberal!) and a party that, this year, is happy to be at the forefront of celebrating the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, cannot bring itself to defend a Convention over which Britain played such a crucial role in creating.
 
Sadly the few voices speaking up for human rights in the Tory Party have been ruthlessly silenced. Clarke and Hague have gone or are going. And Dominic Grieve, who described the Tory proposals as a ‘car crash’ was sacked as Attorney General despite praise for his work. We must be prepared to work with him and others in all parties to defend human rights in the months and years ahead.
 
These rights should be above party politics. Just remember what these rights actually are, and then consider how extraordinary that a Conservative Prime Minister cannot speak up for them:
o the right to life; 
o the prohibition of torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; 
o the prohibition of slavery and forced labour; 
o the right to liberty and security of the person; 
o the right to a fair trial; 
o prohibition of punishment without law; 
o the right to respect for private and family life; 
o the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; 
o the right to freedom of expression; 
o the right to freedom of assembly and association; 
o the right for men and women to marry and found a family; 
o the right to peaceful enjoyment of personal property; 
o the right to education; 
o the right to free elections; 
o and the prohibition of discrimination.
 
And then think of the specific cases where these principles have been applied – cases I never hear David Cameron or any other Conservative mention when they set out their plans. They never mention the cases that:
o Protected children who have been beaten by their parents;
o Stopped the police from storing the DNA of innocent people;
o Banned fines for immigrants who want to get married;
o Protected siblings from sexual abuse
o Stopped a man being prosecuted for having gay sex
o Protected the freedom of the press
o Gave a woman - a male to female transsexual - the right to marry
 
And if you ever think you could trust a majority Labour government on human rights, just remember this: some of these cases were against the last Labour government. Don’t forget, when Liberal Democrats consistently supported an equal age of consent and the repeal of the ban on gay people serving in the Armed Forces, Labour hid behind the European Court – letting them force the Labour government into action so they could have it both ways. 
 
There should be no reason why any citizen or resident of this country could not sign up to those rights. However, we know that many people have been persuaded that ‘human rights’ means something else. Whipped up by the Daily Mail, by Ukip and by many Tories, too many people have become convinced that they are harmed, not protected by ‘human rights’. This is a challenge for all of us – we have to raise our game and do better. Because this debate is not going away. It’s one I am absolutely convinced we can win, but we cannot assume that the constant undermining and misrepresentation have had no impact – because it’s clear it has.
So we need to expose the Tory lie. It’s one they perpetuate in collusion with the Mail, suggesting that withdrawing from the ECHR would suddenly see all issues to do with immigration or deporting criminals resolved. What they never say is that this is nonsense: because we would still be bound by international treaties that even the Tories don’t dare threaten, such as the UN Convention Against Torture and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. 
 
It doesn’t mean we don’t support reform. As Liberal Democrats, we always should – and do. There are ways that the Court works that need to be updated, not least to deliver faster justice. The backlog of cases is unacceptable. There are also decisions made at a European level that probably should in reality be made by national governments and we can work in partnership with other signatories to take forward change.
 
But to walk away from the ECHR would remove at a stroke our moral authority on human rights when we engage with other countries around the world. To join Belarus – a dictatorship - as one of the only European nations not to be a signatory. It would send a signal to governments, including in Europe, that they would no longer be held to a standard that we ourselves no longer were willing to hold ourselves to. Just imagine the signal it would send to Vladimir Putin?
So, Liberal Democrats will go into the election with a clear principled position. We will defend absolutely the European Convention on Human Rights and the UK’s position as a permanent signatory to it.
 
But we will also go further. We believe the time has come for a written constitution with a British Bill of Rights. The Commission on a Bill of Rights we set up in 2011 looked at this. It failed to come to a unanimous view because the Conservatives saw it as an opportunity to weaken the ECHR, not complement it and strengthen it. The Liberal Democrats are committed to a constitutional convention after the general election and this should be central to its work.
The truth is thatthe Conservatives don’t care about the rights of British citizens, they care about losing to UKIP. The plans they have set out make no sense – you can’t protect the human rights of Brits and pull out of the system that protects them. And there are good reasons not to trust Labour who, too often, cave in to populism when it suits them.
 
Liberal Democrats have always been 100% clear that we will not allow the Tories or any other party to take away the hard-won human rights of British people when in the UK or anywhere else in Europe. The fight is on. It’s one we must, and we will, win.
 
ends